July 12, 2007

One Cheer for Playing the Race Card

I haven't yet seen this documentary on high school debate called "Resolved" that attempts to cash in on the "Spellbound" boom in nerdy competition documentaries, but it sounds intriguing. The director, Greg Whiteley, stumbled upon a great human interest story: two black guys, Richard Funches and Louis Blackwell, from the dismal Long Beach public high school Jordan, where only 2% of seniors score over 1,000 on the SAT (Math plus Verbal), won the 2005 California high school debate championship in policy debate and finished second overall. And they did it by rebelling against the dysfunctional quantity-over-quality style of debate that has dominated for the last 40 years.

When I was in high school debate in the early-mid 1970s, it was obvious that debate had gotten off track and needed a rules change. To make the competition more objective, younger judges had started flowcharting the entire debate in enormous detail on three foot wide drawing pads. Debaters responded by increasing the number of arguments they put forward by speaking faster. If they could spit out 32 arguments in 8 minutes, and their slower-speaking opponents could only refute 24, then there were 8 arguments that had gone unrefuted and therefore, logically, they must win! As the Variety review explains:


Pic cleverly explains (aided by some ingenious stop-motion animation by Sean Donnelly) the odd stylistic changes that overtook debating in the 1970s, shifting from normal vocal delivery to a high-speed chatter, a la auctioneers, dubbed "the Flow," intended to pack as much information as possible within a time allotment. As Cal State Fullerton coach Jon Brushke and others explain, the weapon of pure argumentation was replaced by that of information overload. In an uncanny way, "Resolved" touches on a key characteristic of contempo life -- the avalanche of information and data that threatens to overwhelm users.


Obviously, this emphasis on speed isn't good training for much of anything in the real world, where trying to talk faster than the other guy is more likely to get you a punch on the nose than the acclaim of your fellow men. When FDR, for example, was in debate at Groton in the 1890s, they taught him to try to persuade his audience, not overwhelm them.

Back in the 1970s, we figured that the debate authorities would come up with some reform of the rules, just as in the 1950s the NBA solved the opposite but similar problem of basketball teams stall the entire game without shooting by instituting a 24-second shot clock. For instance, perhaps judges would only be allowed to take notes on one side of a sheet of 8.5" by 11" paper that would bring sanity back to debate.

But, it appears that nothing happened in debate for decades after I dropped out following my junior year in high school. Like a lot of institutions, bad trends were self-reinforcing. The people who won under the stupid rules didn't see why they should change them.

Finally, Funches and Blackwell of Jordan H.S. got away with talking slowly and persuasively, like human beings rather than debatedroids. How? By constantly playing the race card. Kevin Butler writes in the Long-Beach Press Telegram:


A two-person debate team from Jordan High School is shaking things up in a new, feature-length documentary that earned an audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month.

Richard Funches and Louis Blackwell, two African-American students formerly at the inner-city North Long Beach high school, stick out among high-powered teams, mostly from private schools, with few black members.

The documentary shows the pair - who became state high school champs, graduated and went on to compete in college - trying to change the style of debate. The film also profiles a white team from University Park, Texas. The director and producer, Greg Whiteley, said he wanted to spotlight high school debate, as documentaries have explored competitive activities such as spelling bees.

The focus, however, partly shifted to Funches and Blackwell, who came out of nowhere in the debate community to become state champions in 2005. The students, now both 19, argued that the structure of debate itself had the effect of excluding minorities and low-income populations. The structure had "never been thought of as a problem because ... the debate community is mostly an affluent community," Blackwell said.

The pair discussed the inequities during debate rounds in an effort to change the system.

"We felt like a lot of urban minorities ... didn't necessarily have adequate resources or equipment to debate the way" most teams debate, Funches said.

The style of rapid speaking and jargon-filled prose also is exclusionary, Funches said, prompting his partner and him to try to switch the conversation during debate rounds to argue about the structure of debate itself.

Too often in debate, the rapid-talking tactic results in a victory for the team that throws out the most arguments, even though some center on outlandish scenarios, said David Wiltz, a former Jordan debate coach who worked with Funches and Blackwell.

"What we were saying is that the issues we were bringing into the round were more real and had more impact than any other issues we can discuss," Wiltz said.

The strategy was not without controversy, Funches said. "There were several people who wouldn't even shake our hands after the round," Funches said.

Funches and Blackwell didn't have debate in mind when they first enrolled at Jordan High School. Funches ended up fleeing into a debate room for safety during a 2003 melee at the school. He got interested after talking with the debate coach. A teacher advised Blackwell to join the debate club. Funches said that debate kept him focused and out of trouble. "Debate kind of saved my life," he said. [More]


My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

We felt like a lot of urban minorities ... didn't necessarily have adequate resources or equipment to debate the way" most teams debate, Funches said.

What sort of equipment is he talking about? Mental equipment comes to mind.

The style of rapid speaking and jargon-filled prose also is exclusionary, Funches said, prompting his partner and him to try to switch the conversation during debate rounds to argue about the structure of debate itself.

Entering a contest and then complaining about the rules is extremely unsportsmanlike as well as immoral, but it's nothing new. It analagous to minority advocates claiming that blacks suffered from being excluded white schools, and then, --after integration-- complaining about a eurocentric curriculum, underrepresntation of blacks, unequal test results etc.

But let me be fair, I don't really think its a moral failing of 'urban minorities'. It's really a consequence immorality their white champions in the MSM and academia. They are the one's defining the boundaries of acceptable public debate, and talking about the blatant fact of leftist goalpost-moving is presently considered a foul in the leftist rulebook. Leftists never play fair and change the rules as it suits them. The sense of fairplay of the common man is just a tool in their eyes.

Anonymous said...

"community to become state champions in 2005."

Is there a way we can trick China into buying California?

The state is lost anyway due to demographic changes.

It's time to start thinking about how we can save the other 49 states.

Old Right

tommy said...

We felt like a lot of urban minorities ... didn't necessarily have adequate resources or equipment to debate the way" most teams debate, Funches said.

I've never taken debate, but I'm curious as to what kind of equipment a debate team would even need?

If they don't have that equipment, then maybe they should be complaining about the way the liberal educational establishment allocates it resources rather than whining about racism. After all, Long Beach gets an average amount of school funding per pupil in the state of California.

Jeff Burton said...

Another former high school debater here. I agree that the highly stylyzed debate format was ridiculous (you didn't touch on the jargon - I was half through college before I realized that mismal was not a real word). However, I don't think this is an improvement: The pair discussed the inequities during debate rounds in an effort to change the system Post-modern crap.

Marie Everington said...

erm, how is it 'fairplay of the common man' when non-white common men are excluded? 6.12's comment about goalpost moving is rather misleading. if anything, there are numerous historical examples of non-liberal whites' goalpost moving. cf the travails of jews (and now east asians re: college admissions criteria).

talking extremely swiftly is not any sign of intelligence. and for these two young gentlemen to point this out is hardly 'race card pulling'.

Mark said...

I've never taken debate, but I'm curious as to what kind of equipment a debate team would even need?

I'm a long time out of the debate community, but there are two pieces of "equipment" any good cross-ex/policy debater needs. The first is lots of "evidence" - little quotes and stats gathered up relating to the present year's topic. I have no recollection of how much such evidence cost.

The other is a good teacher, dedicated to the debate program. In some schools debate is actually a credited class, rather than just an after-school activity, and occasionally it can even be substituted for an English requirement. These schools, of course, tend to have the best programs.

I dipped my toes back into the debating world a few years ago as a volunteer judge. The kids are smart, funny, and ambitious, but I think most of them would be shocked at how little training tournament judges get, even at major tournaments. I found the culture to be a little askew about which elements of debate were important. I also saw what appeared to be blatant corruption, seeing some fairly lousy speakers winning out over far better ones (that was in Impromptu, not cross-ex).

In some ways debate seems to have gone the way of modern poetry, creating its own little ghetto where there's so much wind and fury over things the outside world pays absolutely no attention to.

Debating/public speaking takes great smarts and rhetorical skills - the kind you would think would serve a person well in public life. But perusing the NFL tournament history, I notice only one person of note who has won an NFL tournie - Shelley Long, who took 1st place in oratory in 1967. An interesting tidbit, but her IMDB bio makes no mention of it.

Drawbacks said...

I don't know anything about this stuff, but it now makes more sense to me that the hero of Thumbsucker became a high school debating star after he started taking a Ritalin-type drug.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I never had anything to do with "debate" in high school or college. To find that it has been, for decades, a quasi-sports competition about how fast one can speak is stunning in a funny/sad way, like a scene from "Idiocracy."

I thought that *rational arguments* and *sound logic* win debates (as opposed to political campaigns or other pissing contests).

Now I learn it's about "rapid speaking" and "throwing arguments and statistics" "out there," no matter how absurd or logically irrelevant these are.

Also that "I think most of them would be shocked at how little training tournament judges get, even at major tournaments" as Marc said.

Ah well. Like everything in high school (and most colleges) - competitive clueless morons jacked up on testosterone. Meet your future and present leaders.

Horatio said...

Wouldn't a format that requires "on your feet" verbal fluency favor blacks? That's exactly the type of intelligence you use when playing dirty dozens or rap battles.

Big Bill said...

"The style of rapid speaking and jargon-filled prose also is exclusionary, Funches said, prompting his partner and him to try to switch the conversation during debate rounds to argue about the structure of debate itself."

This is disturbing. Translated into English, "exclusionary" seems to mean "is structured to keep out black folks because they either (1) cannot speak rapidly and clearly or (2) cannot maintain a high-energy, fast-paced train of thought. Pity they believe it is a racial characteristic.

Their solution was delicious, however: just change the topic of the debate to a meta-debate whether the debate community is racially exclusionary, and just DARE the judges not to award them a blue ribbon.

(NB: I do not think for a minute that the boys themselves came up with the concept of using the black meta-narrative to subvert the process. I strongly suspect it was the brainstorm of their coach.)

They remind me of my father. One evening I asked to stay up late so he could tell me a story. He said his story would be about a boy who got his butt whupped for staying up late. Did I really want to hear the story? I didn't.

I suspect the judges didn't want to "hear the story" either. Like me, they understood that the real story -- the real debate -- was about the judges and what their liberal anti-racist self-image would suffer unless they gave the brothers the award they wanted as opposed to their rich, white, hegemonic, hyper-prepared jabbering competitors.

But think about it: the brothers really were masterful debaters. They knew their audience (the judges). They knew the most powerful rhetorical weapons to use (their race). They knew the chink in the judge's armor (threats to their liberal self-esteem). It was brilliant!

What angered their debate peers was the sure and sudden knowledge that there was nothing, nothing at all with which they could counter it, except by being poor, black and slow speaking -- only one of which they could change.

The only way to deal with these guys would have been ot go back to square one: realize they were going to be attacked as racists for speaking fast, and recognize that as long as the brothers were speaking slow, they could unman the personal attack on them as racist fast-speakers by speaking slower and more deliberately than the brothers themselves. But they didn't. They kept jabbering, thereby providing the brothers with the very rhetorical ammunition they needed.

guest007 said...

Having a couple of articulate, church trained black orators play the race card when on the negative side plays to all of their strenghts and minimizes their weaknesses. Since they are attacking the culture of debate and whites, the can present prepared or semi-prepared first and second negatives instead of the rushed, spread negative presentation. It makes them look like polished speakers instead of auctioneers and they do not really have to know the details.

To those asking how wealth prepares. To become a good high school debater, you have to attend summer camps that teach you the jargon, introduce the topic, and give you many practice rounds. You can also purchase a ton of prepared information (it used to be called canned materail). A school with several teams can be good at preparing the canned briefs.

I have judged before and found it odd that some of the judges know what the arguments should be and get upset when the standard arguments are not made.

Luke said...

Maybe it's time to change the name from debate to rhetoric. Or oratory. Also, let each debater be free to choose which side of the question to debate, instead of being prepared to debate both sides. That would put a premium on creativity. E.g., when I was at Reed in the early 1960's, there was a debate team from Stanford that went up and down the West Coast debating all comers on the issue, as I recall, "Democracy is the best form of government" or something like that. The two guys at Reed decided to argue the negative (one of them Lenny Ross, a 12 year old child prodigy, the other Don Kates, a 5'-2" gun nut but very smart). They won handily by cleverly arguing that not real democracy, but "democratic forms," such as we actually have, are the best way to go. This approach took the Stanford team by surprise, and they had no ready response.

Anonymous said...

erm, how is it 'fairplay of the common man' when non-white common men are excluded?

Racial exlcusion per se isn't an example of unfairness. Why is it any more or less unfair than exclusion by any other criterion? I understand I can't immigrate to India because I haven't got Indian ethnic heritage. Is that unfair? Why it is considered unfair when whites excludes non-whites, yet eminently fair when the reverse is done? I see a double standard here, and that is unfair.

In any event the claim that school segregation was unfair (whether it was or wasn't) was an appeal to the comman man's sense of justice. Blacks were portrayed as having been wronged by segregation and integration was to be the remedy. Civil rights advocates basically didn't say anything about how they would subsequently press for changes to the curriculum, greater minority representation of teachers and so on. Note that prior to integration black schools had 100% black teatchers, and freedom to play with their their curicula to their hearts extent. Of the motives of the integrationists we can only conclude that they really wanted to make the white schools like the black schools, but lacked the honesty and moral integrity to say it.

talking extremely swiftly is not any sign of intelligence.

I don't understand this. I think that the ability to communicate many ideas in rapid succession is a definite sign of intelligence. All the same I do recognise that it's not a real-world debating skill. In fact school debating is supremely artificial. Target audiences determine the outcomes of debates in the real world, not judges awarding points. That being said, the disparity from real debating doesn't really matter. It's a purely moot point. The fact is it is a contest with a set of rules which all the contestants agree to play by, like chess.

cheerful iconoclast said...

It's actually not the case that one wins by just spewing out a ton of words. Sure, bad teams do that, but good teams use strategy to win the round.

I would think that Steve would be attracted to the raw cognitive ability that debate requires. Moreover, while it's true that people don't actually use the rapid-fire talk technique, there are a lot of tasks that require one to be able to gather and organize a large body of information and date, and to make sense out of it. Something for which debate prepares one quite well.

SKT said...

You're talking about policy debate, Sailer, which is completely retarded has fallen out of favor in the past decade for things like Lincoln-Douglass debate.

I agree that the flowcharting, the fast-talking, and the drawers full of evidence that people haul to tournaments on trailers are completely ridiculous. Which is why I never did it!

Dennis said...

Pulling an Uzi pistol is one way to win a debate.

Anonymous said...

You can read chapter and verse how this racial revolution in debating was conceived, developed and deployed up close and personal in Joe Miller's 2006 book, Cross-X. Pathetic.

philoguy24 said...
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philoguy24 said...
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Gene Callahan said...

"Entering a contest and then complaining about the rules is extremely unsportsmanlike as well as immoral..."

Chap, the rules are, we white pukka sahib's will rule and you wogs will fetch us our port, and it is extremely unsportsmanlike as well as immoral if you so much as complain!

What a jerk anonymous is!